Testing this 108MP camera makes me wish the Samsung Galaxy S11 DOESN'T have one35
The Xiaomi Mi Note 10 is the first phone in the world to use the aforementioned 108MP camera sensor. It is also the phone I've been using for about a week now. There are many things to like about it, including the great battery life and the unbelievably low price, but sadly, it's hard for me to put its 108MP camera on the list.
More megapixels, more problems
Let us step back for a moment and answer a fundamental question: what camera do most people need on their phone? The answer, in my opinion: a camera that is fast, reliable, and takes good photos and videos in a variety of conditions with minimum effort on the user's side. Does the 108MP camera on the Xiaomi Mi Note 10 meet the criteria?
Let's get speed and reliability out of the way first. Sadly, this is one of the slower cameras I've tested in a while. If I haven't used the camera for some time, it literally takes several seconds to launch. Taking photos in the default 27MP mode is a reasonably quick process, but switching between photo and video modes takes longer than it should. The bottleneck in the Mi Note 10's case could be the mid-range Snapdragon 730G that it's powered by, but I can't imagine the chipset being the only culprit when the phone is overall very fast and responsive.
Okay, okay. But those 108MP photos look outstanding, don't they?
As I hinted above, the 108MP camera on the Xiaomi Mi Note 10 merges data from four pixels into one and produces 27MP pictures by default. You can take 108MP pictures if you wish as there's a dedicated 108MP mode in the camera app. However, taking a 108MP picture makes the camera app unresponsive for several seconds as it processes the image and you lose features like HDR, not to mention that the output file varies between 10 and 20MB in size.
The good news is that in many cases, the images do look fine – not as fine as the record-breaking number of megapixels would suggest, but fine nonetheless. In fact, I took a few pictures with the Mi Note 10, the iPhone 11 and the Samsung Galaxy Note 10, and the ones out of the 108MP camera did look more detailed. Shocker, I know. Here's a photo that I took at the office:
And now here's what that photo looks like from up close. Even the crop From the Mi Note 10 in the collage came from a 27MP image, it's clear to see that it is more detailed.
At night, the situation is no different. The photo from the Xiaomi Mi Note 10 is more detailed compared to those from its rivals, although you may have to zoom in on the crops collage to see the difference. Again, below is a 27MP photo shot with the Mi Note 10 along with crops for comparison against top smartphones.
And since I'm sure you're curious to see a full-resolution 108MP photo, here's one along with crops from photos shot with the Galaxy Note 10 and the iPhone 11. Photos from those two phones have been scaled up to match the one from the Mi Note 10 in size. The 108MP image might take a while to load.
Click below if you want to see more samples from the Xiaomi Mi Note 10, including 108MP full-resolution samples straight out of the camera.
A bigger sensor is not always a better sensor
The 108MP image sensor is physically very large (for a smartphone camera) so it takes in a lot of light and captures more detail. But a larger sensor requires a larger optical system, and the one on the Mi Note 10 doesn't seem to be particularly great. The size of the sensor combined with a fixed wide aperture creates a shallow depth of field. On one hand, this creates noticeably more background blur (bokeh) in the photos which may serve an artistic purpose. But on the other, images taken at a close distance tend to look... pretty awful, frankly speaking, and that blur isn't particularly pleasing to the eye.
The two images above were taken at a distance of about 20 centimeters (~7.9 inches) away from the mug with the focus set on the robot. Notice how the handle of the mug is already out of focus in the photo from the Mi Note 10 while it is still somewhat sharp in the iPhone's picture.
What does all that mean for the Galaxy S11 camera?
According to rumors, the Samsung Galaxy S11 and Galaxy S11+ will both come with a 108MP camera, supposedly based on the second generation of the sensor in the Xiaomi Mi Note 10. But after testing the Mi Note 10 for a week, I'm starting to think that a 108MP camera creates more problems than it solves. It doesn't only make the camera slower and physically thicker because of the larger optics (half an inch/13mm, in the Mi Note 10's case), but the benefits of the extra resolution are only slight and hard to appreciate.
Can Samsung pair its 108MP sensor with better optics? I'm sure it can. Will the camera be faster when coupled with the new Snapdragon 865 chip? That's highly likely. But will the image quality and the entire camera experience be improved in a significant way by the new sensor? Honestly, I'm kind of skeptical for now. I hope Samsung proves me wrong next year.